Why You Should Read China’s Favorite Sci-Fi Epic

The Three-Body Trilogy, now fully translated into English, pits the limits of science against a hostile universe.

There was a moment recently when the internet, parsing a report from scientists at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, thought we might have received our first interstellar transmission. The hyperventilating headlines gave way a few hours later to cold-water explainers about why it probably wasn’t the work of aliens—or a wrong number. But let’s say it was a real message from 94 light-years away: Should we call back? Anyone who’s read China’s most popular science fiction series, The Three-Body Trilogy, in which author Cixin Liu follows into the far future the consequences of a Chinese scientist who replied to such a signal, would keep silent forever.

Illustration by Sam Island

The first translated volume, The Three-Body Problem, reached the U.S. in 2014 and wound up on the reading lists of President Obama and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—two people who’ve spent a bit of time contemplating what’s to come. The final volume, Death’s End, arrives in the U.S. on Sept. 20 ($26.99; Tor Books), but you should read the roughly 900 pages of the first two books first so it makes sense. Why, you might ask, should you bother to read that many pages of Chinese sci-fi? Especially when you probably haven’t perused much of the Western variety lately? Given how many times we’ve seen the American imagination destroy humanity—Independence Day, War of the Worlds—isn’t it time we let somebody else take a crack? The payoff is a grand—and grim—speculation about the limits of scientific progress.

The trilogy’s plot defies easy summarization: In 1971 a disaffected scientist makes contact with an alien civilization, which leads to the prospect of a full-scale invasion 400 years in the future. (Interstellar travel takes a while.) Scientists and statesmen undertake generation-spanning policy initiatives to prepare, leading to clever plot twists that unfold throughout the course of decades. By the time the reader gets to Death’s End, the love story between a brain in a jar and the beautiful astrophysicist the brain went to college with but never had the nerve to ask out will make total sense and be genuinely moving. Again, it’s complicated.

Chinese fiction hasn’t made significant inroads with U.S. audiences, but that should change. Turkish writer and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk once said of China’s rising middle class, “I do not think we shall truly understand the people who have been part of this transformation until we have seen their private lives reflected in novels.” He was talking about Chinese versions of Jonathan Franzen, not Isaac Asimov, but we can ease into that. Don’t think that this trilogy doesn’t tackle serious stuff—topics it’s hard to believe the censors let Liu publish, such as brutal infighting during the Cultural Revolution, followed by a Maoist purge in which a physicist is murdered.

Translators are working to bring American readers up to speed. Chinese American novelist Ken Liu (no relation), a popular and award-winning sci-fi author, translated the first and third books in the series, creating engrossing, nuanced prose. Around the time The Three-Body Problem reached the U.S., Neil Clarke, editor of Clarkesworld, an online sci-fi enthusiast magazine in Stirling, N.J., began a Kickstarter campaign that’s raised about $13,000 to pay for the translation of nine other stories by Chinese sci-fi authors, including Han Song, whose acclaim almost matches Cixin Liu’s.

Ken Liu has warned English readers against putting a neat definition on what makes Chinese science fiction different from its U.S. counterpart. There’s a lot of sci-fi in China, he says; asking what defines an American sci-fi story would produce an equally unsatisfying answer. Still, reading someone else’s dark dreams of the future has got to be good for us. For once, we get to be the aliens.

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